I have a question for you about artificial things and their dependence on the human intellect.  Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae (First Part, Question 17, Article 1) that "natural things depend on the divine intellect, as artificial things on the human."

How would someone like St. Thomas understand a dam that a beaver builds or a nest that a bird builds?  Can some artificial things depend on things without intellect?



Glad to respond.  St. Thomas recognizes, of course, that a beaver makes a dam.  However, to call the dam “artificial” is a little ambiguous, because by “artificial things” St. Thomas means things that are the result of a finite being's rational planning and deliberation, and the beaver’s work isn’t that.  Rather it is a natural product of activity that the beaver does not understand, just as the apple is the natural product of an activity that the tree does not understand.

Of course the beaver, unlike the tree, has a mind, and in that respect it is much more like us than the tree is.  However, it doesn’t have a rational mind.  Plants seek their ends automatically, without even knowing what these ends are.  Animals “know” their ends in a sense, but not in the reflective sense; they do not grasp the concept of an end.  We know them, pursue them, and know that they are ends – we know them not just as felt impulses, but as meanings, as rational purposes, as reasons for doing what we do.

The beaver doesn’t ask itself “Why am I doing this?”  It isn’t intelligently participating in God’s providential care for it, as we are when we take thought for our lives and for those persons and matters that are entrusted to us.  Deliberately directing ourselves to purposes is a property of man, for though subrational things also act for purposes, only man does so under his own agency and direction.

For this reason, St. Thomas says that although, in a sense, all creatures participate in the Wisdom by which God created and governs the universe, man participates in it “in a more excellent way.”


Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose